Funding for mental health, varsity athletics at heart of LU referendum

by MacKenzie MacDonald and Jill Schalk

Laurentian University, in unity with the governing student bodies on campus, are holding an online referendum on November 1 and 2 which could increase annual student fees by $100 for full-time students.  

The referendum will ask students two separate questions:  

  • Do you support the creation of a new mental health and wellness fee of $50 per year, and  
  • Do you support an increase of $50 to the Varsity Athletics Fee, from $87.67 to $137.67 per year. 

Students will have the option of approving the increases, rejecting them, or spreading the  increase over two years. 

Students will also have the choice to vote on an increase for the Laurentian University Emergency Response Team (LUCERT), Pride, the Women’s Centre, World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and Indigenous Student Circle.  

According to Laurentian, the university’s compulsory ancillary fees are currently the second-lowest of the 21 Ontario universities. In order to change those fees, the university’s administration and student associations must follow a process laid out in the Compulsory Fee Protocol. 

 On its student portal,, Laurentian says that fees are used to enhance the cultural, social and recreational environment of students, or to provide other non-academic services to students. 

Laurentian attempted to pass a referendum regarding an increase to mental health fees from $20 to $70 in March 2017, however student voters did not support the change.  

Do you support the creation of $50 mental wellness fee? 

Chris Mercer, Director of Student Life, said that he believes it is important to invest in mental health initiatives.  

“We’ve heard from students on campus is that there is a variety of [mental health] supports [that are] needed” Mercer said.  

With only three counsellors on campus, an increase in mental health fees could help to double that number.  

“Right now we have three, so that increased investment could add three new counsellors if that’s what we’re looking to do.” 

“It may not just be people sitting in the office from 9 am to 5 pm,” he said. “[It may be] partnering with…a local firm and asking counsellors to be on campus in the evenings. That buys a certain number of hours rather than people, so it’s really about enhancing access to counselling services.” 

“I would imagine that at minimum, we would be bringing in one full time counsellor during the day just to lessen the wait times.” 

In addition, Mercer said the university remains focused on supporting students in a preventative way. 

“How do you help the people who need help, ranging from low to moderate anxiety all the way through to severe mental illness?,” he said. “[It’s about] making sure those people are supported but also always working with the student population on leveling up the individuals ability to self-manage, self-navigate, self-help, but also help their peers.” 

“It’s [really] about creating that community of care,” Mercer added. “So, if there are ten thousand people on this campus on any given day, if everyone has some training in mental health support, we could be a pretty caring, awesome place.” 

While the mental health referendum may not have passed with student voters back in 2017, third-year communications student Christopher McCormick said current students seem a little more receptive to the idea of an increase to student fees. 

“Recognizing things like mental health, supporting a lot of integral groups within the school community, like [LUCERT and Pride], and some of the other groups I think [is] a step in the right direction,” McCormick said. 

Do you support an increase of $50 to the varsity athletics fee? 

Mike Griepsma, a varsity runner, said he would support the increase to fees for athletics. 

“I feel like it would be a large benefit to our athletic programs, especially the high performance sports, like track and field and cross country,” Griepsma said. “[They] don’t receive as much funding as some of the larger team sports.”  

Currently Laurentian students have a compulsory ancillary fee of $216. Of that, $87.67 goes directly towards the varsity athletics budget. This fee has not increased in over 20 years, putting Voyageurs athletics well under the provincial average. Laurentian ranks in the bottom three of overall athletic budgets across Ontario.  

“The increase we’re asking isn’t going to touch the provincial average” said Athletics Director, Peter Hellstrom. 

The current provincial average sits around $200 for varsity athletics, and with the passing of the referendum, Laurentian would only see an increase to $137.67. Still $60 less than the provincial average.  

“You know, at the end of the day, first and foremost it is to allow the current programming to be sustainable for years to come,” Hellstrom said.  

With 21 different programs and an estimated 335 varsity athletes, income does not meet the output, making the program unsustainable moving ahead, Hellstrom added.  

Currently, the budget for athletics sits around approximately $1.7 million. 50% of the budget comes from Laurentian University, 30% from student fees, and 20% is fundraised capital.  

This highest priority of where the budget is spent is paying into the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and USport leagues. According to Hellstrom, without a league to play in, there is nowhere to play. Combined, it currently costs around $100,000 to pay into the different leagues for each of Laurentian’s team sports.  

Athletics’ budget is also currently divided among teams that have the highest need for capital. The cost of equipment for a hockey player is more than that of a swimmer, for example.   Hellstrom said there is also never any discrepancies from men’s to women’s teams. there is equity throughout.  

Other factors considered when divvying up the athletic budget can include amount of games in a season, paying for officials, cost of travel, accommodations, and equipment. The more games in a season, the higher the cost of running the team.    

Also, as an OUA and USport rule, all basketball and hockey games must be webcast. This provides additional costs for both webcast equipment and individuals to monitor the gear.  

If the referendum passes in favour of the fees increase, the athletic department has a plan in place of how the money would be used. Primarily, the increase would be to help support and sustain the current programming so that there are opportunities for years to come.  

 There is also a goal of building up university’s brand, Hellstrom said.  

Currently there is support in Laurentian’s basketball program because it is easily accessible by students, specifically those who live in residence. However, Hellstrom’s goal is to build “pride and community” around all of our athletes and athletic teams.  

According to Hellstrom, another important investment that Voyageurs athletics would like to make is into paid jobs, internships, and practicums. 

Hellstrom wants to introduce over 70 new jobs, from statisticians, to reporters, and even a marketing promotions team.  

In order for the referendum to pass, according to MyLaurentian, the voting results must meet one of these two requirements: there is a positive vote of 50% plus one within at least two associations with a quorum of 7%, or there is a positive vote of 66% of all votes cast with a quorum of 7%. 

Each question will be asked separately. Students will vote on the individual questions, rather than the increase as a whole.  

To cast their vote, students must log in to MyLaurentian November 1 or November 2. Results will be made public November 2. 

NOTE: A previous version of this story omitted a question on the referendum ballot regarding the Indigenous Student Circle.